Women really do run the world. For nearly a decade, more women runners have been crossing the finish line than men. In the United States, women make up 57 percent of finishers — that’s about 10.7 million women racing. Globally, female race participation is up 25 percent, compared to 7 percent for men. That’s a lot of girl power, which is why we’ve created this women-only guide to running. Here you’ll find advice about the big and small challenges of running while female, and how women can get faster and stronger in spite of them. So ladies, grab the sports bra, lace up your sneakers and let’s hit the road.
The Female Body
We’re not shaped like men, so we don’t run like them. Here’s a look at some of the biological differences that can work for and against female runners.
Women tend to be more flexible than men, which can be both a good and a bad thing for a runner. The extra flexibility is a result of a woman’s body structure and function — our hips are wider and our hormones allow our tendons to stretch for childbirth. We also have less muscle mass, allowing our bodies to move more freely.
Flexibility can be good in a runner because it means that your body is moving slightly differently with each stride, and not putting the same load of pressure on your joints every time you stride and land. This can protect against injuries. “If you load exactly on the same point of your joint the same way over and over again, it’s going to place a lot of stress on it. With more flexibility, you’re not going to load the tissues in exactly the same way every time,” says Dr. D.S. Blaise Williams, director of the VCU Run Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University,
But flexibility is also a weakness. Looser connective tissues return less energy with each stride. It’s like having a lax rubber band — pull it and it doesn’t snap back. The top runners tend to have extremely tight hamstring muscles, which allow them to generate more energy during each stride. So flexibility may reduce injury risk, but it also means that you are slower.
Most runners are heel strikers, and women are more likely to be heel strikers than men. Heel striking is believed by many running experts to cause higher impact than landing near the middle or front of the foot, possibly contributing to an increased risk of injuries. In one of the few women-only fitness studies, scientists decided to study injury risk among 249 experienced female runners, all of whom were heel strikers.
Remarkably, 21 of the runners not only did not become injured during the two-year study but also had not had a prior injury. The researchers found that the never-injured runners, as a group, landed far more lightly than those who had been seriously hurt. Not everyone can land as softly as this unusual group of runners, but experts have this advice:
- Consciously think about a soft landing. Some runners, especially those with a long history of injuries, might want to experiment with landing closer to the midfoot, since many — but not all — runners naturally land more lightly when they don’t lead with the heel.
- Consider, too, slightly increasing your cadence, which is the number of steps you take per minute, a change that also tends to reduce the pounding from each stride.
- Imagine that you are running over eggshells or, even more evocatively, are a water strider, moving gracefully and weightlessly across the pond.
A woman’s extra body fat may be an advantage for endurance runners. Not only do women have more body fat reserves, some research suggests that a woman’s body may be more efficient at using body fat and conserving glycogen, which is the main way the body stores glucose and fuels exercise. For now, men overall are stronger and faster, but women are physiologically well-suited for endurance events.
Of course, there is a downside. While our body fat gives us more endurance for the long haul, it also can hold us back in the shorter races, slowing us down and making us work harder to run at a given pace.
In general, women seem to be better at pacing themselves during a race than men are. A Marquette University study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, gathered data about the finishers at 14 marathons and 91,929 participants, almost 42 percent of them women. Researchers found that at the midpoint of each race, men slowed significantly more than women racers did. In aggregate, men covered the second half of the marathon almost 16 percent slower than they ran the first half. Women as a group were about 12 percent slower in the second half. Far more men than women fell into the markedly slower category, with about 14 percent of the male finishers qualifying versus 5 percent of the women.
A woman’s heart is smaller than a man’s. A bigger heart can pump more oxygenated blood around the body. This is one reason men can run longer at top speeds. It’s worth noting that women’s hearts enlarge and remodel with training as much as men’s hearts do, but they start out smaller so also remain smaller.
Women tend to get more injuries than men, in part due to differences in the shape of a woman’s hips and pelvis that put more stress on our bodies. Compared to men, women tend to have less strength in their hips and core. Women also tend to have strong quadriceps — the big muscle that runs between your knee and hip — and weaker hamstrings — the muscles that runs down the back of your thigh. This makes women “quad dominant,” says Dr. Williams. This imbalance affects the stability of the knee. Together, weaker hips, cores and hamstrings can cause a woman to run with a collapsed posture where a female runner’s pelvis is rotated forward to the floor, making her knees more likely to bump into each other, and her feet more likely to pronate (roll inward). Dr. Williams says this physiology is much more common in high school female runners, and women tend to get stronger and more stable as they age. For some, though, these weakness can stick around.
Pregnancy and motherhood seem to improve many competitive women’s running, both psychologically and physiologically. Paula Radcliffe famously won the 2007 New York City Marathon less than a year after giving birth, while the American Kara Goucher set a new personal record at the 2011 Boston Marathon barely seven months after having a child.
Many of the physiological changes that occur during pregnancy can be beneficial for runners, exercise scientists have found. A woman’s heart pumps more blood during pregnancy, for instance, and she gains red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Both of those alterations are beneficial for subsequent athletic performance. Pregnancy also is a kind of resistance training, with a woman’s bones and muscles adapting to bear considerably more weight as her unborn child grows. Most of these changes are not permanent, physiologists point out, but some do linger for a year or more after a woman gives birth.
On the other hand, women sometimes find that their running form is different postpartum and, for some, running may even become painful, probably because their pelvis has shifted its position during the later stages of pregnancy and childbirth. But there are exercises that can help. Scroll down to our section on pregnancy for more information.
For many female runners, though, a signal advantage of motherhood is that it teaches you mental toughness. Compared to labor, the pains of a marathon are almost insignificant.
Strength training is important to any running program, and these exercises specifically target the parts of the body that tend to be weaker in women.
FOR YOUR HIPS
To improve the strength and stability of your hips, you have two main options: floor exercises or hill workouts. If you want to add the targeted strength training, try these exercises twice a week. Hill workouts can be included as part of your normal runs — it’ll improve your endurance, too.
RUN OR WALK UPHILL
If you want to train and build the muscles on the back sides of your legs at the same time, add some hills to your training. Running uphill works your calves, glutes and hamstrings, not to mention builds your endurance. Try adding hills to one of your weekly runs (or crank up the elevation on the treadmill if you run inside).
FOR YOUR CORE
These three exercises can be added into any other strength training routine you already do to strengthen your abdominals and the muscles in the back of your legs. Try doing them twice a week for best results.
Another good option for a woman’s body? Trail running. Running on uneven terrain forces the body to stabilize itself by engaging the hips and core, thereby strengthening those regions, said Dr. Williams. The terrain also forces you to take smaller steps, and as we said earlier, a higher stride rate means fewer injuries.
If you’re coming back from an injury, a trail’s soft surface can help you ease back into running. Plus, unless it’s a completely flat and unobstructed trail, you’re going to be forced to slow down to get over rocks, roots, logs and maybe even a guardrail. The shifting terrain can prevent you from going out too hard and too fast too soon.
Can you find fellow women on the trails? While women run more road races than men, the gender stats are flipped for trail races. Sixty percent of trail runners are men and 40 percent are women, according to the American Trail Running Association. But trail races are a much smaller segment of the sport, and they tend to be more laid back than their road counterparts.
A NOTE ABOUT FITNESS STUDIES
Exercise studies tend to be conducted on 18- to 25-year-old elite male runners, and because of this, women should be careful about the advice they take. If an article about the female body leads with, “studies have shown that,” read with skepticism. Not every study can be generalized across genders, says Dr. Williams.
Fortunately, this is starting to change, and more studies are including women. It will take some time, however, before the new study results trump the institutional backlog of knowledge built on looking at fast, skinny men.